Last week voters in the Helena School District approved the operational levies asked for by the school district, but failed to pass the building reserve levies.
The failure of the building reserve levies means students won’t be back in Central Elementary School next year, said current school board chair Libby Goldes.
In reflecting on the failing levies, district officials feel like they could have done more to explain the importance of the building reserve levies. They asked for new building reserve levies at a time when they are still wrestling with the operational plan for the district.
It could be that voters were confused about what the building reserve levies would do differently than a bond to support the operational plan.
The operational plan, which was unveiled to the school board last month, outlines more than $100 million in new school buildings and upgrades to existing buildings around the district. To fund the plan, voters are going to have to approve a bond, which will likely be on the ballot in November. It could be voters thought Central could be fixed with future bond money, which is true.
“We failed to really go to the community and educate them on what he building reserve would really have done,” said Helena Public Schools superintendent Kent Kultgen.
School districts around the state fund much of their ongoing building maintenance, along with some construction and facilities work through building reserve levies. These levies can not be run in perpetuity, but must have a sunset date within 20 years of passing. The two levies voted down by voters last week would have lasted 10 years and raised about $1.25 million annually. Current building reserve levies for both the high school and elementary school districts in Helena will end after next school year. The new levy would have overlapped the existing levy by a year, which may have also added to the confusion about the need for the new levy.
With the new levy, the district would have been able to apply for a low-interest loan to fund the necessary improvements to Central School, possibly allowing for students to return by January.
However, the school board has yet to make a decision on how to proceed with Central School. And while the levies failing puts the district in a bind to pay for other improvements around the school district, like some roofing and boiler fixes along with updating school security district wide, it simply reduces the options it has for Central School.
“It took away the option for now of fixing central and putting students back in there as quickly as possible,” said Goldes.
It seems the public is saying they will support our schools, as indicated by approving the operational levies, but they need a clear plan before putting more money into the aging buildings around the district.
While we’re disappointed the building reserve levies failed, we also believe it is time to put together a clear plan of how the school district intends to proceed with the operational plan. They need to be clear with citizens about where new schools will be built and what renovations will be made to existing schools. The information has been collected, now the board needs to make a decision.
The district also needs to make a quick decision on how to proceed with Central Elementary. The options are still to do the simple seismic upgrades to make the school safe for kids, or do a full renovation, or raze it to the ground and rebuild a new structure in its place.
All these options will continue to be discussed at school board meetings and the public will continue to have their opportunities to comment, but it’s time to make the decision.
And it seems like Kultgen and Goldes agree.
“You have to make a decision about central because it will determine what other things we can do,” Goldes said.
“I believe the community is ready for direction and we have to provide that direction…I think it’s imperative that we sit down at the table and start making decisions,” Kultgen said.
We look toward this summer when the board must develop a clear path forward for the district.